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What is the craziest thing that has ever happened to you on a flight?

This is the number one thing I’m asked when people find out I’m a flight attendant. It’s a natural thing to wonder. This is a life that many people never dream of living, a job that many people couldn’t imagine doing, and one that many have simply never thought about before. And because it’s cool and novel and because planes are either exciting or scary, depending on the audience, it makes sense that they’d think the job was that, too.

 

The nice thing about this question is I don’t have to think about it. My wildest flight attendant story of the bunch is an easy pick.

So, today I’m going to give the people what they want. Here is my craziest flight story from my six-and-counting years working as a full-time flight attendant.

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The trip was going fine. The flight would not be long and it was getting dark outside. Our 100-person plane was only half full and the people were settling in, relaxing quietly. My favorite kind of night on an airplane.

I was working in the front, so I’m called the F1 (Flight Attendant 1). The girl in the back is the F2. I’ll be calling her F2 for the remainder of the story, because surprisingly or not, I can’t recall her name. I’d know her face the moment I saw it though.

We were in the middle of service, giving the people what they wanted. All the drinks and snacks their hearts desire. I was in the front galley replenishing my tray of beverages when I heard the phone chime.

It was the F2. And she was calling to tell me this:

“A child soiled herself back here.”

I hung on the line, didn’t say anything for a moment because I wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted me to do.

“The family back here,” she continued, “With the man and I think the grandmother. It is everywhere.”

I made my way to the back of the airplane to investigate. I saw the woman seated several rows before the last, in the window seat, holding the sleeping toddler. It was indeed everywhere. There was a brown puddle on the carpet just in front of my toes, to the right of the aisle seat.

How did this happen? The child seemed to be fast asleep. Did they take her diaper off and let it rip on the floor?

I stepped over the puddle, continued to the back galley to try to figure out what was going on. The lavatory was locked, and the smell was potent through the door. The F2 stood in the galley, and with her a customer. The woman was pale, thin. Her short hair was blonde, and she wore rectangular glasses with thick black rims, the kind that make you look artsy. She looked disturbed. There was a bit of mania in her eye, and she was holding a canvas bag. Undoubtedly filled with art supplies.

“Are you sure that was the child?” I asked. “She’s sleeping.”

But my question was answered before she responded. The door opened and the man exited. He was tall and broad, taking up most of the space in the tiny bathroom. Stains and smears colored the walls, the door, after he left it. The odor exited with him. It was clear that it had not been the child who soiled herself, nor the floor.

Every single day brings the possibility of something
completely novel to occur.

The blonde woman in the back galley had been sitting behind the man. She’d done as told before takeoff, pushing her little canvas bag all the way under the seat in front of her. And when the man in question had undergone an explosion of diarrhea, in his seat, while asleep, her bag had been in the perfect position to receive a rather unwanted gift.

This sudden explosion, you see, was one of surprise and great force. Enough to propel itself up and over the seat, into a puddle in the aisle. Up over the waistband of blue jeans and through the crevice of the seatback and into the artist’s bag below.

It was astounding, really. How does this happen?

I do not know how I got so lucky, but the F2, bless her heart, gloved her hands, took a stack of paper towels and went to take care of the danger zone by row 20, while I stayed with the artist. I, in my own set of gloves, passed her paper towels, sanitizer wipes. She removed her pencils and papers and placed them into a trash bag to save. She attempted to clean the canvas bag. I wished she would throw it all away. Just say goodbye.

We had a non-rev onboard (A flight attendant, not working, but flying for leisure or to get to work.) and she graciously stepped in to help. She reseated the passengers from the back rows, placed them toward the front, less affected by the odor, now noticeable and gaining strength. She finished serving the drinks and the snacks, and she played flight attendant for the rest of the flight, while the F2 and I played Hazmat.

I asked the family what had happened, are you feeling alright? They did not speak English, and disappointingly, my six years of French classes did not provide me with enough memory to hold this simple conversation. I paged for a French speaker to assist. And one volunteered. Together, we asked the man how he was feeling. Had he been sick? Did he want medical treatment once we arrive? Shall we have medical personnel meet the flight?

He believed it was something he ate. He had felt fine before. He did not wish to receive medical treatment.

There are a few things I wish I’d done differently in this situation. That I’d change if I could. I was about a year into being a flight attendant, which is pretty new in terms of wild situations in-flight. First, I would have paged a doctor to speak with him (through the French speaker). Though he did not want medical attention, I could have had better insight on further questions to ask or things to offer.

The second is that I would have, through the French speaker, offered a blanket for him to sit on. Encouraged him to get his suitcase and change. I would have provided care and compassion to this man at the same rate as I provided it to the people around him that were reseated and given free drinks. I may have been perfectly kind that night, but I can’t be sure. It happened quickly, and we were dealing with a lot of different components. If I had to do it over again (and I hope I never do) I will be sure.

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Anything can happen at 30,000 feet.

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Having declined medical attention, the incident came to a close. We sprinkled a white scented clumping powder from the biohazard kit, used for bodily fluids. We covered the offending carpet spot with a blanket. We ripped open bags of coffee, scattered the grounds, and dusted the back half of the airplane with arabica potpourri.

We gave the artist and her husband a new seat and multiple vodkas. Thanks to the non-rev, everyone got their drinks and snacks. The man and his family were resting. The air was still a bit rank, but we had greatly improved it. We’d been in contact with the pilots to fill them in on the situation. And we were ready to land.

We’d handled it.

The satisfaction of handling shit (literally, in this case, but usually not), of making it work, gives serious adrenaline-infused warm fuzzy feelings when you are a flight attendant. You just want to high-five the shit out of your crew and pat the F out of yourself on the back for being so cool, collected, and competent. You NEVER know what kind of challenge is about to pop up when you step foot on a plane. Maybe a drunk person, maybe a terrorist, maybe a broken lavatory or emergency landings. You don’t often think of explosive diarrhea, but THAT too!

Most days nothing happens. But every single day brings the opportunity for something completely novel to occur. I have goosebumps writing this because, as much as I never want any of those things to go down, the possibility is…exciting. People who work with me know I looooove boring days, but maybe this potential for danger, challenge, excitement is enough to keep me wide-eyed in this job. The fact that IF there is an issue it may be something you’ve never experienced before. At 6 years on the job. At 20. Something you couldn’t have imagined. And rising to the occasion to solve and take care of this endless multitude of potential issues feels SO good.

 

So basically. It sucked, but we got through it together.

And this is true, we really did. But at this point in the story we weren’t “through it” yet at all.

There was more for us to handle. The situation wasn’t over.

We landed, and people began deplaning, as you’d expect. But at some point in the process something weird started happening. A passenger stopped on the way out to ask me what our “protocols” were for this type of situation. Another asked me if they would be “notified” if the man turned out to be sick. (With something contagious, presumably.) I know reading this now, in the midst of a global pandemic, the questions don’t seem so unreasonable. But it was 2015, and they did.

Not only was ‘contract tracing’ not a part of our vocabulary back then, but there was also the issue that the man had refused medical treatment. He was not going to be examined by a doctor. By his account, he ate something that did not agree with him. And while I will help anyone who asks, we are not in the business of forcing medical treatment on people who shit their pants.

I think and I hope that this one will always take the cake.
My craziest flight attendant story ever.

And person after person stopped by with similar inquiries.

A female passenger with a pregnant belly stepped back up to the airplane door after deplaning.

“I’m a physician, and I just want to know what your protocols are for this,” she asked, cradling her bump through her clingy, striped dress.

It struck me that this physician never made herself known during our flight. That she was telling me now, through thinly veiled questions about protocols, that she believed the man was ill and that it could be something serious. I wondered how her oath didn’t compel her to speak up sooner.

The answers I gave—uncoached in this particular situation, and doing my best—did not appease the passengers concerned for their own health. Several of them gathered at the gate area. They raised their voices. The artist and her husband were in the mob. I understood their concerns but was floored at the severity of their reaction. My crew and I had to be escorted past the frenzied customers and out of the airport. I sought counsel from the pilots, ran the situation by them again. Had I done something wrong?

“No,” the captain had said. “We don’t hold people against their will for medical exams. Now keep your eyes forward and walk.”

I walked and I wondered.

The family was Haitian. They were black and spoke French.

Would these passengers have had the same reaction if a little old white man pooped his pants on their flight? Or would they have had some compassion?

The Ebola epidemic had scared us here in the States, despite only having a couple cases ever reach our cities. And because this family was black and spoke a foreign language, they must have therefore been carrying some exotic African disease, right? They certainly looked the part.

Today, we are hyper-aware of the spread of infectious disease. Customers ask me to enforce our mask policy if someone else takes theirs off. But this is new territory.

The reactions of those customers on our flight showed me that they were afraid of the different, of the unknown. In all my years of flying, I’ve seen poop and pee and vomit in the cabin of the airplane. And I’ve never seen another reaction like this.

I cannot blame the customers on that fateful flight for being concerned about their health. When it comes down to it you have to be your own best advocate for your health and safety. But I also can’t help looking at the role that race and culture and fear played in this scenario.

Thankfully, I’ve never dealt with this exact situation again, although there have since been plenty of wild days on the airplane. I think and I hope that this one will always take the cake.  My craziest Flight Attendant story ever.

Now you know.

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Feature Image by skeeze via Pixabay

Cabin Image by Ty Yang via Pixabay

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